New Luzerne County union contract reduces controversial longevity bonuses

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | April 7th, 2016 7:00 pm

A 15-year unionized Luzerne County court branch secretary making $33,000 received an annual $1,039 longevity bonus under the previous collective bargaining agreement.

But that same employee will now receive $400, or $639 less, because a recent binding arbitration award with county Court-Appointed Support Staff threw out a longevity formula in exchange for flat amounts.

Another example: a 28-year secretary paid $38,000 will now receive a length-of-service bonus of $900 instead of $2,234.

While county officials would prefer to get rid of longevity bonuses altogether, they had pushed for conversion to flat amounts in arbitration, arguing the formula payouts were too high. The formula multiplied the years of employment by the salary and 0.0021.

The new flat amounts range from $200, for employees with 10- to 14 years up, to $1,100, for those with 30 or more years of service.

Critics have argued the length-of-service bonuses provided to some of the county’s 10 unions are an unnecessary luxury, while advocates maintain the bonuses should remain to reward loyal, experienced employees.

The longevity change, which will save an estimated $60,000 annually, is one reason county officials are uncharacteristically satisfied with the arbitration award for the 115 or so unionized secretaries and clerks in probation, domestic relations and magisterial district judge offices.

Officials have complained in the past that binding arbitration — the impasse resolution for unions that can’t strike — is usually more favorable to the union side. With binding arbitration, a neutral arbitrator sits on a panel with both a county and union legal representative to hear arguments and draw up a new contract that must be accepted by both sides.

Court Administrator Michael Shucosky said the arbitration award also increased health care contributions that must be made by the support workers and will only allow workers to sell back unused vacation days at the end of the year for cash if the court denied their request for time off.

The new contract also strips out some seniority rights that provided the most veteran workers with more protection in layoffs and shift assignments, and repeatedly inserts new language emphasizing the court’s power over personnel matters.

“We are pleased that the contract recognizes that the court is an independent entity from county government and that the court has sole authority to hire, fire, supervise and discipline employees,” Shucosky said.

Union perspective

Paula Schnelly, head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union representing the support workers, said she believes the neutral arbitrator “went right down the middle” in the new contract and another recent arbitration award for around 100 other workers in the Court-Related Unit she also represents.

Schnelly said the arbitration was a “give and take” for both sides.

“We lost certain things that we really had for a long time, but at the same time times have changed,” Schnelly said. “We also maintained certain things that we had for a long time as well.”

County Administrative Services Division Head David Parsnik said he believes both sides were “happy with the outcome.”

“The process worked,” he said.

What did the support workers union gain?

The contract, which replaces one that expired Dec. 31, 2014, awarded no raises for 2015, but union members will receive 2.5 percent raises this year, followed by 2 percent in both 2017 and 2018.

The number of vacation days remains the same, ranging from 5 days for employees with 6 months to a year of service to 25 days for 20-year workers, with the option to earn an additional half day per year up to 27.5 days.

Support workers will continue receiving 12 to 17 sick days annually, depending on their hire dates.

However, the arbitration says the court has discretion to require a doctor’s certificate when employees use sick days. Previously, an excuse was required only for five consecutive sick days, or situations where the county determined a “pattern of abuse” had occurred.

Another arbitration addition: Support workers who have exhausted their sick days can’t apply for more time off from the “sick day bank,” which is a pool of unused days donated by union colleagues, unless the workers first request and receive leave approval from the court for a qualifying serious health condition under the Family Medical Leave Act.

Court support workers must pay 10 percent of the premium cost of their health insurance coverage — 15 percent for employees hired after Jan. 1 this year.

Previously, employees hired after March 1, 2006, paid 10 percent of the premium cost while those hired before that date paid flat amounts.

Court-related contract

The court-related contract covers sheriff deputies and administrative and clerical staff in that office and the district attorney’s, prothonotary, clerk of courts, wills, deeds and public defender’s offices.

The arbitration ruling for this union did not contain drastic changes in seniority, but added wording stressing the elected district attorney’s legal authority over hiring, firing, discipline and supervision of personnel in that office.

The court-related workers will receive flat annual raises through the length of the contract: 2015, $400; 2016, $650; and 2017, $825.

The longevity bonuses already were the same flat amounts now provided to the court support workers and will stay intact in this contract. Vacations will remain the same: five days for workers employed six months to one year and 20 days for those with more than 20 years of employment, with the option to earn up to 25 in increments beyond that.

The annual sick day allotment ranges from 11 to 17, depending on the date of hire. Employees hired after Jan. 1 will receive 10 sick days per year.

Court-related employees will continue contributing 12 to 15 percent toward their health insurance premiums, depending on their hire dates.


By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.